Monday, September 17, 2018

Birge Harrison, part 4

Birge Harrison, part 4

A Puff of Steam

Concluding my methodical re-reading (and note-taking) of Mr. Harrison's book Landscape Painting (1909). What follows are my notes from each chapter (I skipped some that didn't really resonate with me).

All this is me attempting to distill the most important points from this insightful collection of lectures he gave.

Chapter 5 "Values"

"... the most important thing to consider is the value-key of our picture."

This is pretty critical. As important as determining the color scheme of a picture, as value has ascendancy over color. I am going to attempt to take this to heart myself in future. (I do make value sketches at the very least before starting any significant painting.) I think Mr. Harrison's point is to ask yourself when making a picture: what part of the value scale best suits your intent? Use as little as is needed (see next quote).

"An outdoor picture motive is complicated indeed if it cannot be divided into four or five dominant values."

Chapter 6 "Drawing"

He somewhat surprisingly suggests NOT drawing from the landscape as much as from the human figure to gain precision:

"The articulation of a limb upon the trunk of an oak. for instance, might start a foot higher up or a foot lower down and still be in character, but the articulation of a knee joint, an elbow, or a shoulder of the human figure must be true to the inch."

He is correct that drawing the human figure is more exacting, but I would not forgo drawing from nature. Get a feel for the landscape and its components and character. Especially for when the time comes that you need to invent something in a landscape picture. That drawing experience and your familiarization with natural elements will pay off.

One of his final remarks suggests that "drawing by mass" translates to painting more directly than linear drawing. I can't disagree with that. One of the transitions I had to make from years of drawing to painting, was to think and work more in terms of masses of color and value, instead of linearly.

Chapter 7 "Composition"

"In my own opinion, about all of the rules of composition which are of any practical value to a painter, are negative rather than positive, and can best be expressed in a series of don'ts."

I find composition a tricker aspect of art to explain and teach than others, and it always seems to make more sense to show students what to avoid than what to specifically employ in their work. And there are often exceptions.

"Don't try to say two things on one canvas."
He names some other rules to follow this, but calls this the one rule that cannot be broken, while occasionally the others can be broken.

"... don't confuse your audience with irrelevancies."

I would personally say that a canvas CAN have more than one area of interest, but that one in particular HAS to predominate.

Chapter 8 "Quality"

He discusses surface quality of paintings in this chapter. His overriding point here is that surface quality, whether smooth or rough has to suit the painting and subject/mood as a whole, and not be inappropriate or distracting.

Madison Square

Chapter 10 "On Framing Pictures"

Birge was a fan of gold or metal leaf on frames.

He believed in the formula of:
Simple picture, intricate frame.
Intricate picture, simple frame.

Chapter 15 "The Importance of Fearlessness in Painting"

"Always dare to the limit of your knowledge and just a bit beyond. You must show conviction yourself, if you would convince others."

Chapter 16 "The Subconscious Servant"

"A picture painted direct from nature must necessarily be hasty, ill-considered, somewhat raw, and lacking in the synthetic and personal quality which is the distinguishing mark of all great art - unless the work is really done from memory while the painter is standing before nature - which might be the case if he had had time and opportunity to ripen his vision."

"... true synthetic beauty is not within the reach of the mere copyist."

This is a fascinating chapter and one that I am not completely sure I understand. He talks about the use of memory in painting. One must see through the mind and not just the eye. Painting from nature feeds the "subconscious servant" and stores up information that helps down the line with one's work. So that as an artist matures he or she is not just copying nature but taking in what is there and using and rearranging it to make an effective picture.

Chapter 19 "What is a Good Picture?"

"Art is natural beauty interpreted through human temperament."

"The highest form of sincerity is truth to the artist's own personal vision of beauty."

Chapter 20 "The True Impressionism"

"... technique is not the difficult thing in art ... but it requires many a long and weary year to learn to see."

"... students learn much more from each other than they do from their masters."

I have been in classes for which this was true, and many where it was not. I suppose it depends on the quality of instructor, and mix of students you wind up with.

Chapter 21 "The Future of American Art"

Birge wraps up with an optimistic outlook for American art going forward. As in, this is OUR time now! He also muses about the possibilities of modern structures like steel mills and skyscrapers as subject matter for paintings.

Summing up:
This is a fantastic book, especially if you love American Landscape painting and Tonalist painters like Inness, etc. Birge's words really resonate with me and this book has a permanent place in my recommended reading list. I now want to get a hardbound earlier printing for my library. I wish someone would reprint this with color reproductions, but I also with that about John Carlson's book...
I plan to re-read Carlson's landscape painting book as carefully as I did this. Also upcoming is Edgar Payne's Composition of Outdoor Painting.

Inn at Cos Cob

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Master Copy

A copy of Arthur Hoeber's Golden Twilight

A month or so ago, I wrapped up teaching a painting class titled Landscape Painting in the Studio at Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago. One of the final tasks I set before my students was to execute a master copy. I don't know if doing this sort of thing is somewhat out of date, but I have done a number over the years, and they have done me a lot of good. The effort of very carefully observing the original and then exercising your own technical abilities to render the same effects is a wonderful challenge with real rewards.

My copy after Arthur Hoeber's Golden Twilight

You get deep into aspects of painting such as:

Palette / Colors
You may go as far as researching what colors the artist used and replicating his or her palette, but I think assessing what colors you have that can mix the desired resultant hues is fine. You may find yourself getting only so far with 4 colors and realizing you need a 5th (as I did), but that's part of the learning. (I list my pallet below)

Overall value structure is key. You can mix the right color, but it's essential to put the right value and value relationships down. More important, even.

I think looking at good work and allowing yourself to be influenced by it can help an artist absorb good compositional structures. What then could be better than making a copy of a work with strong composition?

Brushwork / Edges
How do you think the artist applied paint? How do areas of differing color and/or value transition to each other? All that good stuff.

I planned to do a copy along with my students, and brought along one of my favorite and most personally inspiring art books: David Cleveland's A History of American Tonalism.

I thumbed through and somewhat randomly chose a painting by Arthur Hoeber (1854-1915) titled Golden Twilight. I just liked it, that's all. It's moody, with a kind of contre-jour effect of the light of the recently-set sun facing the viewer and giving the shadowy trees a warm halo. He wasn't an artist I was at all familiar with prior to choosing this image. I thought it best to work from the image in the book, as I figured it would be reasonably well color-corrected and it can be nice to get one's eyes off a lit screen. Also, a printed image in a book works in a reflective light model as does paint on a canvas (as opposed to transmissive light from a digital device's screen). It can help for comparisons to keep things within one realm.

My Palette
After looking the painting over, I figured I could mix the necessary colors with Yellow Ochre, Terra Rosa, Cobalt Blue, and Burnt Umber. (Later on, I added Indian Yellow.) Not sure what he used exactly, but I'll bet an umber would have been on his palette. I would say the one color I didn't quite nail was the green in the middle- and foreground.

What did I learn?
Most of his colors are quite neutralized. The blue in the sky - when I had gotten it mixed satisfactorily close to the original - looked just like a grey sitting on my pallete. The power of context when it's placed by the warm areas of the trees and the warmer clouds make all the difference, and heighten the apparent saturation of both.

The areas of greatest contrast are right along the horizon where the golden area of sky shines behind the dark tree trunks. Clearly, right where he wants you to look. Everywhere else is softer edges. The line of clouds in the sky and the water in the foreground all lead to the large tree left of center.

I think he may have done a warm, orange underpainting, or just had his canvas toned. I feel like it peeks through in some areas. I would of course, love to see the original. I think there's some thick impasto in the foreground grasses.

Here is an image of the original I found online. It differs from the one in the Cleveland book in a few ways. It has a less saturated green in the lower half and more extreme light values. I think the way it was lit for photographing exaggerates the surface texture. Possibly the photo online is before a cleaning and re-varnishing? (I tried to tweak this a little to better match the book version with some success.)

Golden Twilight
Arthur Hoeber c. 1895

In conclusion, master copies are good for you. Do one once in a while. That is all.

You can see some lovely Hoeber paintings here:

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Birge Harrison, part 3

The quotable Birge.

Grand Central And The Biltmore In Hazy Twilight

I have taken notes from some of the passages from Landscape Painting that reveal how Mr. Harrison went about his painting, and his thoughts on art-making in general.

I find the below to be some of the most revealing.
(These are all from chapters 3 & 4)

On technique in the service of individualism:

"... one of the chief delights of the art of painting lies in the fact that each artist does, and of necessity must, invent his own technique; for his personal technique is an inalienable part of the personal vision which makes his art his own."

I take this to mean in practice that one should learn and try many techniques from the masters of the past and your teachers of the present. Some technique, or combination of techniques, is the way forward for you on your path to an individual creative style. The only way to find out which is to work and experiment. A lot.

On vibration:

"The whole picture in all its exact values can and should be built up in this preliminary covering of the canvas, for the value of the overtone must in every case exactly match the value of the undertone."

"While we wish to secure broken color, we must avoid broken values, for they utterly destroy atmosphere."

" The undertone must be warmer than the overtone, and second it must never be brown;  and this for the excellent reason that out-of-door nature abhors brown, and never uses it."

So... broken color was Birge's thing.
There's more than one way to go about that. Birge's way was to lay down a warm underpainting of shapes and values, and then work on top of that with a cool color, not completely obscuring the undertone.
He was after vibration through contrast of hue, not value.

His whole negative reaction to brown may stem from an over-use of it in the generations preceding him. Earlier artists - and many, if not most of them did not paint outside much - tended to lay down a brown underpainting and/or have brown shadows in their landscape paintings. Shadows outside tend to be cooler, blue or blue-grey, often reflecting some of the blue of the sky. And tree trunks and branches are more often grey, or grey-green than the commonly thought of brown. I myself would never say that there is zero brown out in nature, but there is not as much as people often think.


On Refraction:

(I take Mr. Harrison to mean "edges" when he says "refraction.")

"no picture in its extreme corners should be painted with quite the same vigor of technique or strength of color or of value as in its natural focal centre."

A pretty obvious concept, but a good one to keep in mind when painting or drawing.
One can become obsessed with rendering detail and over-refining over the whole of an image, but end up doing so at the expense of clarity and focus.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Birge Harrison, part 2

Soaring Clouds

Back to Birge

Lovell Birge Harrison

(I notice many sites have his first name as Lowell. It is actually Lovell, but many have mistakenly assumed the more common Lowell.)

His elder brother Alexander was also a very accomplished painter.

The Wave
Alexander Harrison

They exhibited together at The Art Institute of Chicago in 1913.
The catalog from that show can be seen/downloaded here:
What a show that would have been to see...

Hidden Moon

At one point in Landscape Painting Birge outlines the 4 distinct ways (as he saw it in 1909) to make an oil painting.

They are:

1. The classical approach of making a monochromatic underpainting and then glazing color on top, as Renaissance painters did.

2. Laying unbroken color in "smooth flat masses" as a house painter does

3. Painting dabs of differing colors like an Impressionist. The "spot and dash method," as Birge calls it.

4. Doing what Birge himself advocates (and presumably other Tonalists did?) and painting cool colors on top of a still-wet warm underpainting. "Care being taken not to mix or blend the two coats and not to cover up completely the undertone, rather letting it show through brokenly all over the canvas...." The visual interaction of the cool and warm giving the painting "vibration."
I plan to try this method. It seems to me that it might be tricky to do as he says and not inadvertently mix or blend the warm and cool.

I think this detail are from Fifth Avenue at Twilight shows the kind of vibration he went after in his work. The turquoise and violet in the distant building contrast and vibrate with their differing hues, but their values are very similar:

Fifth Avenue at Twilight (detail)

More to come....

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Birge Harrison, part 1

Sometimes it can really pay to go back and reread something.

In my case, Birge Harrison's 1910 book Landscape Painting.

Fifth Avenue at Twilight, ca. 1910
Detroit Institute of Arts
One of his most (rightly) famous works and they do not have it on display!

I got it a while back and read it. Liked it, but wasn't particularly bowled over. A recent Facebook mention of it got me to start rereading it, and I'm very glad I did.

Having made a certain number of paintings, and logged many more miles of brushwork in the interim, his concepts now really resonate with me.

Oh, and his work? Amazingly beautiful. Gorgeous. Rich with atmosphere. I long to see one of his paintings in person.

Sunburst at Sea

I made this post a "part 1" as I have not read through the whole thing again and yet feel I have enough for a worthwhile post. There will be a part 2 and maybe more...

Here are some of his points that really clicked with me:

on Art:
"...this is the test of the highest form of art - that it should stimulate the imagination and suggest more than it expresses."

on Values:
"the best we can do is to translate the infinite value scale of nature into our sadly finite scale of pigments, and endeavor' by most careful balance, to adjust our means to our ends."

"...the most important thing to consider is the value-key of our picture. Assuming the whole scale of values from the deepest black to the purest white to be represented by the number 100, the question arises as to what proportion of this number we shall use in the particular work which we are proposing to execute.. In this matter the golden rule is reserve. We lose rather than gain in power by forcing the note, and a picture in which the whole scale from black to white should be employed would be absolutely without atmosphere, and without charm."

Sunrise from Quebec
sold at auction in 2016 for $26,000

For me, his paintings really seem to make color (and value) count by his using less of it.

You can purchase a reprint of Harrison's book combined with A. Durand's in one volume for $15
buy from Amazon